One of the taglines promoting FX's 2010 series Terriers read "Too Small to Fail," a reference to the perilous economic status of the central protagonists' private investigation business. But as the show’s small but scrappy - and occasionally rabid - fanbase found out, the motto was prophetic in predicting minuscule ratings and FX's decision to end the show after a season. But should we regard this series as a failure? In a 2009 dossier on failure published in The Velvet Light Trap, I cautioned against reading the economic failure of a television series as a sign of aesthetic failure, as the lack of a measured audience sufficient to pay for the show often does not match up with its creative accomplishments.
Yet Terriers does invite the label of failure, due in large part to the drama's relentless focus on society’s have-nots - the central duo consists of a failed cop and a failed thief, grappling with failed relationships and running a failing business. Although the show is often quite humorous and almost breezy in tone, as exemplified by this opening scene from the series pilot, there are real emotional and economic stakes at play, as Hank and Britt's failures matter in a way that is rarely seen on commercial television. We like our televisual failures to be villainously earned, melodramatically redemptive, or referentially outsourced to backstory or off-screen action - lovable losers on television rarely actually lose.
Most of the post-game analysis over why a show as critically hailed as Terriers failed to reach a sizable audience focused on how its marketing campaign and title both seemed designed to obliquely evoke a sense of the show, rather than clearly explicating the story and characters. But I believe the failure strikes more deeply to the function of entertainment television, where such representations of failure are rarely embraced by a mass, or even niche, audience. Ultimately, the failure of viewers to embrace Terriers's low-rent milieu and bottom-scraping heroes is the saddest failure of all, as it speaks to the limits of what television can represent, even in today's fragmented narrowcast era.